Meet the Woman Running the Most Powerful Social Change Campaigns
Civic Nation’s Jenn Brown is making a real difference when it comes to putting an end to sexual assault on campus and unequal pay for equal work.
Is anyone else feeling a little bit stressed, depressed or angry (all of the above?) about the state of American politics and the, ahem, current election cycle? We’ve learned the thing to remember is there *are* still a whole lot of amazing people doing amazing work within the political system—making real change! And one of them is Jenn Brown, the executive director of Civic Nation, a non-profit that raises awareness around issues that need major cultural shifts to occur in order to change (think: ending sexual assault on campus, equal pay for women, and access to higher education)—change that, frankly, we’re all for. The amazing thing is, even if you don’t know who Brown is, you’ve almost definitely seen the fruits of her (and her team’s) labor in the form of their work, including the It’s On Us campaign, United States of Women and the All In Challenge.
She works hard—and has been for a long time, from pushing for affordable higher education immediately after graduating from college herself, to acting as field director for the Obama campaign in Ohio and founding Battleground Texas, which works to mobilize Democratic voters. Evidently, she’s a professional political organizer, but in a moment when there’s a whole lot of smoke-and-mirror distractions from the actual policies our elected officials stand for, Brown is all about the causes and doing good. And that, friends, isn’t stressful, depressing or anger-inducing at all. Prepare to be inspired.
“We know that 1 in 4 college women are assaulted on campus. That’s the point of action. How do we make it so that it’s an unacceptable thing to do?”
What Brown actually does at Civic Nation:
“I’m the executive director. What Civic Nation does is run organizing and public awareness campaigns to empower people to address some of our biggest problems. We focus mostly on access to higher education, affordable higher education, gender equality, ending violence against women, civic engagement and increasing voting participation. I manage all of the teams who work on those projects.”
The part Civic Action plays in these movements:
“We choose projects where we think we can make a really big difference with the type of campaigns that we run. All of them have a big public awareness piece where a cultural shift has to happen in order for change to be made. That’s what we do. There’s public awareness and changing the way that people think about things, and then there’s the work that happens in local communities to actually change laws and policies, so sometimes we do that work ourselves or sometimes we partner with other organizations to do it.”
What they’ve done with It’s On Us:
“It’s On Us is a really good example [of a campaign we work on]. We know that 1 in 4 college women are assaulted on campus. That’s the point of action. How do we stop that? How do we make it so that it’s an unacceptable thing to do? We put together a proposal and project plan around exactly what we want to do. We wanted to start with just raising awareness that this is happening. If you go to college, everyone has a friend who was assaulted in school, and no one talks about it. We want to make it something that people are talking about. And then we want to talk about what people can do. In the second year we launched a big campaign about intervening—what it means and how to do it. It’s incredible. There are 28 students on a student advisory council who help us organize on campus. Two weeks ago, we had them in DC for a planning meeting and we did an awards ceremony that night for some of the students who have intervened. It could be anything from a physical intervention to saying, ‘I think something bad is going to happen so I’m going to step in now,’ to taking a survivor to the hospital and actually making sure she gets a rape kit done and is treated well. It’s incredible to talk to these students about what they’re doing. This is our second year of the student advisory.”
“One of the things I learned in this work is that if you're not doing it then it's not happening, so just do it.”
The goal of their work on social issues like campus sexual assault:
“They all have tangible outcomes. For this one, we’re tracking data over time. Initially, when we launched, we actually saw an increase in reporting of assaults, because people were finally having the conversation. Ultimately, the goal is for assaults to go down. That’s what we’re tracking.”
How whole communities can get involved in social change:
“For It’s On Us, one of the things that we emphasize is that we will only end sexual assault if everyone is included—in particular, if men are a part of the conversation. So we have a real emphasis on talking about it with men and giving them tools to be able to intervene—to say something and stop things from happening. And [getting kids to go] to college [another initiative Civic Nation works on] is 100% a community effort and it takes parents and teachers and counselors. The piece that we really enjoy with that project is talking to students about the process and having them talk to each other. Because if you see a peer doing something then they become that much more like a role model.”
The most challenging part of her job:
“Personally, there are a lot of projects. There are eight right now—it’s a lot to manage and keep going. The really hard part is that cultural change is hard. We’ve seen through history that it can happen, but it takes a lot of work before actual change really happens. And when you first start usually there’s resistance. You have to push through it.”
How to make major cultural and social change:
“We think about it in a couple of ways. One is, a lot of the time, behavior is happening because people don’t realize that they’re doing what they’re doing. Or they know, but they haven’t been called out on it. There’s the component of making it a big public conversation. And that in and of itself starts to change behavior. Sometimes it’s policies. Sometimes it’s other types of organizing that has to happen for policies to change. We think about it as: what are we talking to people about; and how are we talking to them in a way that makes sense to them; and who is having a conversation with them? That’s why we have celebrities. A lot of the time when we’re working with young people we’ll have YouTube stars, or people they admire and look up to, talking specifically about the work we do around going to college, for example, or celebrating young people who are actually going to college can make a big difference. It’s the message and the messenger. One of the things I learned in this work is that if you’re not doing it then it’s not happening, so just do it. That’s how change gets made, when people decide they’re going to make it.”
“I think [millennials are] going to push us really far.”
The most rewarding aspect of her job:
“The best part of any day is when I spend it with the people who are actually doing the work, whether it’s high school students who are filming videos or giving speeches about going to school, or the students of It’s On Us. With United State of Women we do a lot of forums. We just had one a few weeks ago that was with women in tech, specifically women who have started startups, and getting to meet them and talk to them and have them talk to a huge group of women about how to do it.
“One of the campaigns, the College Promise campaign, is for free community college—it’s been going for one year. When we launched there were about 50 programs across the country, and a year later there are now 150. We interviewed some of the students who were in these programs and there was a woman in San Jose, California, whose parents hadn’t gone to high school. She graduated from high school and took the diagnostic test, and she was a couple years behind where she needed to be to go to college. She found the San Jose free community college program and now she’s about to graduate from UC-Davis with a degree in neuroscience totally debt-free.”
Why “millennial” shouldn’t be taken as an insult:
“The way in which we communicate is different. In the office the other day, two of our interns were talking and someone was like, ‘Oh yeah, I made this graphic for the campaign I’m really proud of.’ And someone else said, ‘Send me a snap!’ They’re talking, they’re communicating, they’re really engaged, but they’re just doing it in a way that I didn’t know was happening. In a lot of ways I think that they’re more progressive. They see their identities as much more holistic and are much less prejudiced. They just talk about it in different ways, and I think it’s going to be really fun to see the changes that they’re going to be able to make. I think they’re going to push us really far.”
How she discovered organizing and politics as her calling:
“I always knew that I wanted to do something that helped make a difference. In college, I discovered that through politics you can make a big difference in a big way. The first campaign I ever worked on was the California Dream Act, which was for in-state tuition for undocumented youth who had gone to college in California and were Californians and were having to pay out-of-state tuition, which puts you in a mountain of debt. I realized that through organizing and politics you could change things and really make a difference. It’s all I’ve ever done.
“When I left college, I worked at the US Student Association, based here in DC, which is a coalition of student governments. We worked on affordable higher education and affirmative action. In 2005, in the budget that year, were the largest cuts to student loans in the history of the program. Being in DC and watching it happen and watching George Bush sign the legislation was one of the more devastating moments of my youth, when I realized that we had lost and a lot of people would be hurt as a result. All of a sudden college would become much more expensive.
“After doing that I had a couple other jobs, but when Barack Obama was starting to run and young people were really excited about him and he promised to fix the student loan provisions that had been passed a couple years before, I knew that was something I really wanted to be a part of. I called a friend of mine who worked in politics and I said, ‘I really want to work for Barack Obama. I will do anything. Tell me what to do.’ She was in Ohio at the time and she said, ‘If you can be here by Saturday you can have a job.’ So I moved to Ohio. It was the most incredible experience. I lived with a family for the 2008 election and it was a town that had been all steel jobs, and [the jobs] had all moved out of the city and everyone was trying to figure out what to do now. It was really devastating. But people were still hopeful. I learned about perseverance. I had a staff and we were working with voters to talk about the election. After the campaign I wanted to keep working for Barack Obama, so I moved to Minnesota and was the Minnesota State Director in 2009. He was working to pass healthcare reform and we would hold local events and work with our local congress people and get volunteers to call their offices. Then I came to DC and oversaw the Midwest for Organizing for America at the DNC in 2010, and then I got to be the field director for the campaign in Ohio in 2012.
“After the 2012 election, I started an organization called Battleground Texas, which is a long-term effort to make Texas more competitive for Democrats. There are actually more Democrats than Republicans living in Texas. It’s been almost four years of work and the polls this year are very close. Way closer than they’ve been, and we’re very excited, but we’re not declaring victory [laughs]. I started that with Jeremy Bird, who had been the national field director for the Obama campaign. I was there for about two and a half years. I’m still on the board there.”
How she stays hopeful in the face of the current political climate:
“I’ve thought a lot about it recently in the context of It’s On Us, after watching the Trump tape, what he said, and Billy Bush’s reaction. That tape came out the same week that we had the student leaders here. You heard that and then you juxtaposed it with talking to a young man who saw something happening and stepped in and actually stopped it. It left me really hopeful that there’s a generation coming up who has a value set that’s different, and who are stepping in and making changes and who believe in a better future and are taking action on it. Sometimes when I watch this stuff happening, I feel overwhelmed with sadness thinking that’s who a presidential candidate could be. I just remember the young people who are actually doing the work and the fact that we’re going to be able to make really big changes.”
The change she’s hoping to see:
“Equal pay. Paid family leave, [both] maternity and paternity. It varies depending on where you live and every company has different policies, but there are places where you don’t have any time off. And the standard is six weeks, which is nothing. In Trump’s plan there’s just maternity leave—there’s no paternity leave, so the entire burden is on the woman, and it doesn’t include adoption.
"The reason that things are the way they are is [that they benefit] the economic interests of a few. If you can get people back to work faster, or not pay them as much, then you can make more money. There’s an economic interest that we’re up against. The reason we’ve had so much success in having this conversation is that there are a lot of studies that say, if you have women in leadership positions, if you have women on your board and in management positions, you make more money. I think companies are starting to see that it’s actually in their economic interest, but it’s also the right thing to do.”